Creating competitive, high speed home broadband: What you need to know

Free, citywide public wifi access will be a big step toward making Cleveland, as Mayor Jackson used to say, a “digital city of choice”… and a city with far greater digital opportunity for all.

But despite all of a wifi network’s potential payoffs for Cleveland, one thing it probably won’t do is provide really fast, reliable Internet access inside most Cleveland homes and offices. By “really fast” we mean the speeds that are considered “true broadband” by the Federal Communications Commission and others — download speeds starting at 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and rising in many American communities to a gigabit per second (1,000 Mbps) or more.

For most households in Cleveland, the only Internet Service Provider offering download speeds above 25 mbps is Charter Spectrum, with a base rate of about $65 a month for “up to 100 mbps” service.

AT&T, the city’s other “competitor” for high speed broadband in Cleveland, has “digitally redlined” a large part of the city, and doesn’t have the modern fiber-enhanced infrastructure to offer true broadband speeds in many neighborhoods, including most of the “north East Side” (Hough, Glenville, Fairfax, Central, South Collinwood, St. Clair-Superior, etc.) and near West Side.

AT&T has talked a lot about deploying a next generation of very high speed service in the next few years, using a wireless technology called “small cell” or “5G”. But their 5G technology is still experimental (if not mythical), and is unlikely ever to work in areas where it isn’t supported by the same “fiber to the neighborhood” that AT&T has withheld from redlined parts of Cleveland. AT&T’s CFO recently admitted to an investor conference that it’s doubtful that small cell connections will be prove to be cost-effective for urban residences.

Years ago, the City was able to influence the services offered by the cable-telco duopoly by exercising its municipal cable franchise authority, and by intervening in telco regulatory proceedings at the PUCO. But between 2007 and 2010 the Ohio General Assembly eliminated all state and local regulation of Internet and cable TV providers. So now Charter and AT&T dominate our “wireline” Internet market free of both competition and regulation; they can do pretty much as they like in Cleveland, and the City and public have no recourse.

There’s now only one way for a city like Cleveland to have an impact on the future speed, cost and availability of Internet services for its citizens and businesses:  Build its own competing broadband infrastructure, and then

a) go into the Internet business itself (as we did long ago with electric service via Cleveland Public Power), or

b) open the new infrastructure to private companies that want to compete with the existing ISP duopoly, or

c) do both.

There are cities across the country taking these steps right now.

Many of these cities have long-established public power systems (like Cleveland Public Power) and are simply adding Internet access to their services.  The best-known example of this model is Chattanooga, TN, whose Electric Power Board built a much-admired fiber broadband network that now offers “gigabit” download and upload speeds to residents for $70 a month, or 100 mpbs in both directions for $58.

A different model has been created by a group of Utah municipalities, which collaborate to build and operate a wholesale “fiber to the premises” network called Utopia, connecting residential and business customers to a number of competing private-sector ISPs who offer 100 mbps to “gigabit” speeds  at monthly prices in the $33-$55 range.  (Comcast, CenturyLink and Frontier, the major ISPs in the area, were invited to participate but declined.)

Cleveland could follow either of these models, or learn from both, or design its own. But the broad goal — to create a public “big broadband” network for residents and businesses that promotes competition, provides 21st century Internet access at affordable prices, and pays for itself — should be a priority for the Mayor and City Council.

Back to the Cleveland Digital Justice Campaign’s 4-point program